Out here in wide-open Wyoming. where scandals seem as frequent as the snows that still dot the April landscape, battle-lines are being drawn on issues of political corruption and economic exploitation.
Retormers vowed changes after a year in which five state officials were indicted and two convicted of embezzlement and in which the south-western Wyoming town of Rock Springs became a national symbol for vice and crime. But reform-minded citizens are finding it difficult to change the easygoing attitudes of a frontier state that writer John Gunther once called "A erica high, naked and exposed."
This year's legislature, for instance, preserved Wyoming's distinction of being the only state in the West to have no law against official misconduct. For good measure, the legislature also killed proposals that would have required financial disclosure and outlawed conflicts of interests by public officials.
Efforts to increase Wyoming's 10 percent coal severance tax, only a third of neighboring Montana's, also lost in the legislature. sponsors are now circulating an initiative petition, but the state's restrictive initiative laws also make this an uphill fight.
In Rock Springs, where the former public safety director faces trial on charges of killing an undercover officer he had named to investigate corruption in the police department, a new city administration appears to be making progress in its efforts to clean house.
Indications of the difficulties facing the reformers, however, came recently from Rock Springs Mayor Keith C. West. who was interviewed by a local newspaper about the police department.
"the department stinks -- it's horrible," West was quoted as saying. "And I'm not going to put up with it."
West has brought in a new and highly respected police chief to run the department. But other changes have hit civil service system blocks.
West. a self-made millionaire who is considered to be above personal corruption. has made progress in improving city services that were stretehed to their limit by the construction boom in Rock Springs.He also has tried to decentralize the power of the mayor's office.
But the biggest, change, West candidly acknowledges, is that the Wyoming energy boom has moved to other towns, reducing the market for prostitution, drugs and gambling.
"Some of the trouble-makers have gone on to greener pastures," he says.
This moving on has threatened other areas of the energy-rich state, such as the picturesque Red Rock Desert, Mining of coal, uranium and trona, a mineral used in ceramics and glass manufacturing. has increased steadily. Drilling for oil and natural gas, the objects of an earlier boom, again is on the increase.
While many in Wyoming see the energy boom as the salvation of a state that ranks 49th in population and until recently was losing its young people, others fear that it has meant a growth too robust for the state's underdeveloped public institutions.
It is Mayor West's boast, for example, that Rock Springs recently became a full-time city attorney. On the other a full-time city attorney. On the other hand, land-use planning of any kind is regarded as a dangerous import from the East. The University of Wyoming is kept starved for funds and efforts to establish a needed medical school have been successfully resisted by conservative interests.
The colonial nature of Wyoming has been traced to its 19th century origins when the state was formed of the leftovers from Nebraska, Montana and Utah. Wyoming historian T. A. Larson says the state's constitution was copied from North Dakota. Montana and Idaho, "which saved everybody money at the time."
"From its infancy, and with scarcely a break until the 1960s," Neal Pierce has written. "Wyoming government was prey to big financial interests: the Union Pacific Railway, the cattlemen, the oil companies. The objective of this feudalistic power nexus was simple -- to keep taxes low by holding activities of government at a minimum, and to allow the least possible regulation of industry."
This "power nexus" has flourished in the Wyoming legislature, an ill-paid, understaffed collection of 45 men and 17 women limited by law to a 40-day regular session in odd-numbered years and a 20-day budget session in other years.
"There are lots of special interests voting on the floor of the legislature." says Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Bob Burneit, a 13-year veteran and sponsor of the coal severance tax increase. "It's very disturbing to me. The president of the Senate has oil and gas interests. The House speaker has coal, oil and gas interests."
House Speaker Warren Morton, a popular legislator who owns a Casper energy exploration company, makes no apology for opposing severance taxes. He says his constituents know his occupation and can judge him accordingly.
"I'm an oil-and-gas man and I should speak as one," he said in an interview last year.
Morton, however, disqualifies himself on banking legislation on the theory that his directorship in a bank is less well known. He recalls that when he once did so at a legislative session, others followed suit.
"Pretty soon," Morton adds, "we had difficulty getting a quorum."
Often, even the most obvious conilicts of interest are ignored. Surveying legislative conflicts for the Casper Star-Tribune this year, state capital correspondent Joan Barron found a liquor-seller voting on liquor legislation and hunting-outfitters providing the margin of victory for a bill (subsequently vetoed) that would have required out-of-state hunters to purchase their equipment in Wyoming.
But the major source of conflict derives from the state's decade-long energy boom, which from 1970 to 1978 boosted the value of minerals extracted in Wyoming from $500 million a year to $2 billion. Annual coal production increased eightfold to 55 million tons, a figure that would make Wyoming, if a nation, the fourth-largest coal producer in the world.
The energy boom has divided the ranchers, who hold 22 of the 62 legislative seats, on economic lines.
Historian Larson, now 69, who became a Democratic House member after retiring as a University of Wyoming professor, points out that a significant number of landowners, in addition to their livestock interests, now have lease or royalty income from energy extraction and "are apt to have a sympathetic feeling for the coal companies."
While there are many in Wyoming who perceive these conflicts. reformers have tended toward a narrow and frequently partisan field of vision.
By and large, the minority Democrats have been more willing than the Republicans to tax the energy companies.
But because the corruption indirectly resulting from the boom has been associated with a Democratic administration, it is the Democrats who have been most reluctant to outlaw official misconduct and conflicts of interest. The result, in this year's session, was that Democrats killed the political overhaul legislatior while Republicans torpedoed the severance tax increase.
Gov. Ed D. Herschler, widely perceived as part of the problem last year, has tried to be part of the solution this year after winning an upset reelection victory against a Republican tied closely to energy interests. Herschler supported both the severance tax boost and the official misconduct bill without success.
"There is a general attitude against public interest legislation in the Wyoming legislature," says Republican Sen. Rex Arney of Sheridan, a sponsor of the official misconduct law. "The majority of legislators want to maintain the status quo." Nonetheless, there are those who think that the 1979 legislative session marked the beginning of the end for the old Wyoming way of doing things.
Democratic Sen. Ford Bussart of Green River, elected in the reform wave that captured Rock Springs, believes that the next legislative session will enact conflict-of-interest legislation. Arney expects that official misconduct will be made a crime in the context of a pending legla recodification, and maverick House Republican Burnett, an insurance man who disqualifies himself on bills that would increase insurance rates, predicts that the coal tax initiative will qualify and be approved by popular vote.
The real issue, says Cheyenne environmentalist Pam Minier, is whether Wyoming citizens will be able to unite against the economic forces that threaten to engulf them.
"people have always gone their own individualistic ways in Wyoming and not worried too much about what was happening to others," Minier said. "That's changing. But it's a slow process for people to learn how to get control of their own destiny."